An Infamous Fire Turns Fifty

Monday, June 24, 2019

Over at Power Line is a discussion of the famous fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. The fiftieth anniversary of that fire was June 21, and it has been misused to symbolize the alleged evils of capitalism and excuse environmental regulation ever since. The blog post takes note of both widespread misconceptions about and little-known context surrounding the fire. Most notably, the river was already on the mend and it had reached its then-sad state in great part due to the law at the time -- law that also hamstrung efforts at remediation:

[T]he Cuyahoga was treated as an industrial stream, and state permits inhibited local clean up efforts. Public nuisance actions and enforcement of local pollution ordinances, in particular, were precluded by state regulation, while federal laws protecting commercially navigable waterways went largely unenforced."
This comports with a post of mine from earlier this year, in which I noted that law that could have prevented water pollution went unenforced thanks to Utilitarianism. I quoted one source there as follows:
Image by DJ Johnson, via Unsplash, license.
Yet the judges were not insulated from broader social developments and thus their decisions reflected changes in values in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Strict protection of property rights in the early nineteenth century was compatible with the early republican thought, which attributed intrinsic value to property; it was the foundation of propriety and political participation in the society and the source of the citizen's independence. Utilitarian values gained prominence throughout the nineteenth century, culminating in the Progressive Era when Gifford Pinchot promoted the use of water and forest resources for "the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers." The mid-nineteenth century case reports indicate that for judges industry was the vanguard of economic development that benefited everybody. [format and punctuation edits, bold added]
One small problem with this approach is that it is not the proper job of the government to guarantee or actively promote anyone's happiness (as if government officials are fit to judge that for anyone). In doing so, the government disregarded its proper job: protecting individual rights, including those downstream of the industries.

I will also note again that the law was far from perfect regarding the rights of those downstream. Likewise, the cleanup efforts weren't, either, funded as they were, for example, with government bonds.

That said, both (a) how the river became polluted in the first place, and (b) the fact that efforts were already underway to clean it, indicate the following: On top of so much of environmental regulation violating our rights (which should preclude the whole idea), the case for it is weak to say the very least, even if we set aside such objections for the sake of argument.

-- CAV

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, June 21, 2019

Four Things

Here are a few moderately creative solutions to a variety of problems...

1. Problem: A bunch of idiots who insist on cramming their tiny office refrigerator with tubs of butter are preventing someone from using said refrigerator for lunch. Solution: (1) Brainstorm with others, (2) realize (after having to rule out some apparently obvious solutions) that the real problem is that the full refrigerator is preventing enjoyment of a cold drink at lunch, and (3) hide said drink in a butter tub. The photo at the solution link is quite amusing, and I smirk along with the "subterfuge."

Image by Kirk Thornton, via Unsplash, license.
2. Problem: On seeing a discussion of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, I realized with dismay that I now live too far away to visit it easily. Solution: I searched "fallingwater virtual tour" to discover both an app and a really good 3-D video tour so I can at least get an idea. Scroll down for the video, by Cristóbal Vila, which is just under five minutes. Beneath that is a half-hour documentary about the house.

3. Problem: You're stuck with the responsibility for keeping a shared kitchen clean. And people keep loading the sink with their coffee mugs. Solution: Write an amusing message in the sink, as pictured here. (Scroll down to Item 5.)

4. Problem: Some of the podcasts I listen to when driving contain great information -- which I can't take down for obvious reasons. Solution: At some other time, while I'm doing something else, I let Otter transcribe the really valuable parts. Otter is a free app that is surprisingly accurate on its first pass and exceedingly easy to use for editing. I agree with the folks at Fast Company, who write, "There's no perfect transcription app, but Otter is getting there."

Now, all I need is a better text-to-voice app and I'll be set.

-- CAV

A Janitor's Multi-Billion-Dollar Idea

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Via Hacker News, I learned of a story that perfectly concretizes something Ayn Rand once said about judging productivity:

The moral issue is: how do you approach the field of work given your intellectual endowment and the existing possibilities? Are you going through the motions of holding a job, without focus or ambition, waiting for weekends, vacations, and retirement? Or are you doing the most and the best that you can with your life? Have you committed yourself to a purpose, i.e., to a productive career? Have you picked a field that makes demands on you, and are you striving to meet them, to do good work, and to build on it -- to expand your knowledge, develop your ability, improve your efficiency?

If the answers to these last questions are yes, then you are totally virtuous in regard to productiveness, whether you are a surgeon or a steelworker, a house painter or a painter of landscapes, a janitor or a company president.
Incredibly, this story epitomizes the point using the last two examples from Rand's list.

Enter Richard Montañez, a janitor at Frito-Lay, and CEO Roger Enrico, who had issued a company-wide call to all his employees to think of themselves as owners. Here is a transcript of the initial phone call Montañez placed when he was ready to pitch his idea for Flamin' Hot Cheetos. It would probably be blasted as too unbelievable, were it part of a work of fiction:
Spices from elote, pictured, inspired the seasoning for Flamin' Hot Cheetos. (Image by Robert Penaloza, via Unsplash, license.)
"Mr. Enrico's office. Who is this?"

"Richard Montañez."

"What division are you with?"


"You're the VP overseeing California?"

"No, I work at the Rancho Cucamonga plant."

"Oh, so you're the VP of operations?"

"No, I work inside the plant."

"You're the plant manager?"

"No. I'm the janitor."
Montañez is now vice president at Frito-Lay and has since overseen the introduction of several multimillion dollar product lines. His story involves great difficulty, persistence, hard work, and keen observation. I highly recommend making time to read it -- It's a bit under 2000 words. -- especially if you could do with some inspiration. From his humble beginnings, through having to leave school in fourth grade, and from being advised to do the best he possibly could, through finding a way around a faction that wanted him to fail, this truly American success story has it all. (And yes, it is being made into a movie.)

One last point: Although the story focuses on the self-made Montañez, I think it is inspiring and thought-provoking to consider Enrico's part, here, too. Without his active-minded leadership, from "invitation" (as Montañez saw his call to arms) to seeing past the roughness of a janitor's presentation, he deserves high praise and emulation as well.

-- CAV

A Near-Miss at The New Yorker

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

John Cassidy of the New Yorker correctly notes that the zombie-like rise of socialism from the grave is in part due to self-proclaimed pro-capitalist politicians failing to deliver prosperity. Unfortunately Cassidy incorrectly refers to the mixed economy said politicians gave us instead as "capitalism." Such confusion is quite common, but it doesn't hold a candle to another one that surfaces in Cassidy's closing paragraph:

The legitimacy of the market economy is at stake. From Adam Smith to Milton Friedman, defenders of capitalism have argued that it is ultimately a moral system, because competition ensures that it harnesses selfishness to the common good. But where is the morality in a system where the economic gains are so narrowly shared, and giant companies with substantial market power -- the heirs to the trusts -- exercise dominion over great swaths of the economy? Until a twenty-first-century Friedman provides a convincing answer to this question, the revival of the S-word will continue. [bold added]
Cassidy is correct to note both the efforts of many advocates of capitalism to justify the system on moral grounds and the incompleteness of the job. But he doesn't seem to realize just how incomplete the job was.

The good news is that there is no need to wait for the arrival of a moral justification for capitalism. That has already been provided by a twentieth-century radical, Ayn Rand. Although Rand is far better known as a defender of capitalism, she deserves even better renown as an ethicist, for her thoughts on the matter were clear and deep. Tellingly, she starts with a question I dare say none of the previous defenders of capitalism Cassidy was thinking about addressed:
Image by Edgar Chaparro, via Unsplash, license.
What is morality, or ethics? It is a code of values to guide man's choices and actions -- the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code.

The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?

Let me stress this. The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all -- and why?
If my selection of this quote has you scratching your head, it is because the good news is, in a sense, also the bad news. Cassidy is more right than he realizes because -- as one might suspect from the ease with which opponents of capitalism attack it on moral grounds -- capitalists today must ask and answer for themselves some very fundamental questions, beginning with that one.

Practically everyone today assumes that altruism -- a type of morality -- is morality. But if this is wrong -- and Ayn Rand has convinced me that it is -- making a moral argument from such a basis is doomed to failure. But don't take my word for it: Note how easily people get away with making moral and political hay out of the fact that some (highly productive) people make and keep lots more money than others (whom they have not harmed and whose lives they have benefited directly through trade and/or indirectly). They feel safe ignoring the context, part of which I have supplied in parentheses, because altruism so successfully short-circuits moral and political thinking to cause people to circumscribe their focus to the money they can see right now and how much of it anyone has (regardless of why) at this moment. Rand successfully argues that morality helps the individual live and flourish, and shows how (trade) and why (mutual benefit) men should (yes, that is a moral "should") cooperate.

The heavy lifting is like initial research and investment, or like a foundation: Performed correctly, the rest is relatively easy. Ignored, it can doom all further efforts. Given the alternate (a) need some capitalists feel to justify the system on "moral" grounds (noted by Cassidy), or (b) urge others show (not noted by Cassidy) to dodge the issue entirely; it seems strange that capitalists would not have already at least consulted Rand to better understand the nature of the moral attacks coming from anti-capitalists. But until at least some do exactly this, enemies of capitalism will continue to enjoy misrepresenting capitalism and morality with impunity, and an undeserved ease in undermining the economic system that raised the West from destitution and slavery in a very short amount of time.

-- CAV

Every Job Has Its Drawbacks

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Over at Ask a Manager, Alison Green fields a question (Item 3) from a person whose customer-facing work involves caring for plants in offices full of people for whom this part of the job looks like a hobby:

What do I say to people who tell me my job has no stress and is easy? My job is challenging, physical, requires critical thinking, and involves taking care of living things! The implication is, I feel, that I don't have any special skills and that I just float from plant to plant with an empty head.
Green, who admits that the job sounds pleasant to her, advises the following before offering her thoughts on how to respond:
Image by Riccardo Pelati, via Unsplash, license.
[T]ry reframing those comments in your head so you hear them as "I'd love to be able to spend my day taking care of living things and not sitting in stuffy conference rooms with a cranky client who wants to debate comma placement." I do think that's what most people intend to convey -- they're having an escapist fantasy that may or may not reflect the reality of your job, but does reflect their stress/frustration/discontent/burn-out with their own... Or people are just making conversation without realizing how what they're saying is coming across.
That's a great point. The questioner otherwise likes her job, and should realize that unusual jobs will often have unusual drawbacks. And a major type of unusual drawback is having to deal with most people having curiosity about things that have become mundane.

This situation is very similar to that of people who are able to work from home -- and have to deal with family, friends, and neighbors who see the malleable schedule as some kind of vacation.

-- CAV

Hooray for Mazda

Monday, June 17, 2019

Mazda has just announced that it will rid its cars of touch-screen control interfaces, something I was beginning to fear I'd be stuck with the next time I need to buy a new car:

Image by John Schnobrich, via Unsplash, license.
"Doing our research, when a driver would reach towards a touch-screen interface in any vehicle, they would unintentionally apply torque to the steering wheel, and the vehicle would drift out of its lane position," said Matthew Valbuena, Mazda North America's lead engineer for HMI and infotainment.

"And of course with a touchscreen you have to be looking at the screen while you're touching ... so for that reason we were comfortable removing the touch-screen functionality," he added. [format edits]
Touchscreens for everything has always struck me as a fad, and it's nice to see that we won't necessarily have to suffer with such an awful design decision. On car rentals, I have had to deal with touchscreens and found that they added an unnecessary level of difficulty to what had been and should be simple operations. On top of that and the two major safety issues noted above, I absolutely hate having a glowing rectangle in my field of view when driving at night. I may have to live with that, but at least there is now a good prospect that having to look directly at as I drive might be off the table.

I have been a Honda man for almost all of my driving life and, for a bit over a year now, a Subaru man. But I will definitely consider Mazda if they stick to their guns, and nobody else takes notice.

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier and better. Blindly applying new technology to already-solved problems does not necessarily lead to improvement and can actually do more harm than good. I am glad to see that at least one automaker has stepped back from what I would call, with apologies to Richard Feynman, cargo-cult technology.

-- CAV

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, June 14, 2019

Notable Commentary

"Inventors will heed the lesson about what befalls the person who invents a better mousetrap, and antitrust enforcers and judges can freely decide if one is charging too much for the fruits of one's inventive labors." -- Adam Mossoff, in "Huawei Is the Only Winner After the Qualcomm Decision" at RealClear Markets.

The Smoot-Hawley tarrifs exacerbated the Great Depression. The effects of Trump's are starting to be felt, according to Richard Salsman. (Image available from Library of Congress, via Wikipedia, unrestricted.)
"For decades, U.S. tax and regulatory policies have suffocated and gutted American manufacturing, thereby artificially increasing offshore competitiveness and American importation of offshore products; instead of admitting their errors and changing their policies, U.S. politicians and policymakers blamed Japan (in the 1980s) and China (since the 1990s) for being so pro-manufacturing." -- Richard Salsman, in "Why are Trump's Non-Deals on Trade So Surprising?" at The Daily Capitalist.

"'[T]his time will be different' ... are the most repeated and regretted words in market history." -- Richard Salsman, in "Why the Yield Curve's Predictive Power 'Puzzles' Economists" at The Daily Capitalist.

"If 18-year-olds can decide whether or not to assume the risks of major surgery or serving in the military, they should also be able to decide whether or not to assume the risks of smoking." -- Paul Hsieh, in "If 18-Year-Olds Can Fight for Their Country, They Should Be Able to Smoke a Cigarette" at Forbes.

"[W]hatever the actual terms and merits of President Donald Trump's proposal, we need to question the diplomatic article of faith that Palestinian statehood is necessary for peace." -- Elan Journo, in "What Would a Palestinian State Actually Look Like?" at The Jerusalem Post.

"We're censoring ourselves daily, from powerful leftist-run social media and tech companies punishing us for challenging their anti-Western, pro-Islam agenda, to leftists across our culture crusading against speech that they hate, which they call 'hate speech', to conservatives placing 'respect' for religion above necessary criticism of Islam, to the worst censorship of all, self-censorship." -- Bosch Fawstin, in "If We Act as if Free Speech Is Over, It Will Be" at FrontPage Magazine.

-- CAV